We like to think that our modern society prevents unnecessary industrial accidents. While we’ve made much progress, we still have a long way to go. Construction sites and manufacturing plants can be dangerous places to work.
Heavy machinery, chemicals, and complicated production processes mean that there is a web of responsibility that goes into making the workplace safe. If a strand of the web fails, things can go very wrong.
Let’s look at some of the most tragic industrial accidents that have occurred in the U.S. since World War II.
5. Imperial Sugar Refinery
Date: February 7, 2008
Location: Port Wentworth, Georgia
Can sugar explode? It did in Port Wentworth, creating a fireball that was visible from miles away. Sugar can be highly combustible under the right conditions. Dust explosions are frequent in processing plants, and there have been hundreds in the United States over the last 40 years.
The Imperial Sugar refinery was an antiquated building with old machinery. It was not maintained very well. At the time of the explosion, 112 employees were on the job. The blast occurred near the center of the refinery, where sugar is bagged with the help of conveyor belts and elevators up to eight stories high.
The blast rocked the building. Nearby witnesses reported that the flames were several stories high. Eight people died that night, while six more succumbed to their wounds later. Many had burns covering as much as 90 percent of their bodies, and some were placed in artificial comas while on life support.
Forensic investigators identified sugar dust as the cause of the explosion. Imperial was lacking in the housekeeping department, with loads of sugar dust coating the machines, hanging in the air, and piled up several feet high in places. Broken equipment inside a steel conveyor belt ignited the sugar particles.
OSHA issued 124 safety citations to Texas-based Imperial, most of which were identified as “willful”, meaning the company deliberately violated safety regulations.
4. Imperial Food Chicken Processing Plant Fire
Date: September 3, 1991
Location: Hamlet, North Carolina
When reading about the Hamlet chicken plant disaster, you’d be forgiven if you thought it occurred in the 19th century, but it happened in 1991. It is one of the most blatant examples in recent history of both employers and government failing to protect workers.
A faulty hydraulic line to a deep fryer began the blaze. However, there were no fire alarms or sprinklers installed in the 30,000-square-foot building. Despite three previous fires, the doors were locked shut from the outside and the windows boarded up. Due to budget restrictions, the state had not sent a safety inspector to the site in over a decade. The emergency response was delayed, as there were no phones inside the building that could be used to call for help.
The extreme negligence of the employer resulted in the deaths of 25 plant workers and injured dozens of others. Emmett J. Roe, the owner of the company, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He served only four. Imperial Food was fined $808,150, while the insurance companies involved agreed to pay $16 million to the injured and to the families of the deceased.
3. The Phillips Disaster
Date: October 23, 1989
Location: Pasadena, Texas
Texas is home to many manufacturing plants, including the Phillips 66 plant in Pasadena. This plant manufactures plastic compounds and other highly flammable materials. There were approximately 1,500 employees working on October 23, 1989, when a series of massive explosions occurred.
The plant regularly releases flammable gasses that have built up during the process of manufacturing polyethylene. The reactors in this factory had ON/OFF valves controlling the flow of these flammable gases. These valves were accidentally reversed during routine maintenance.
When employees moved the switch into the “Valve Closed” position, it was actually open. This released a cloud of the dangerous gases into the plant. In less than two minutes, the vapor cloud came in contact with an ignition source and exploded with the force of 2.5 tons of TNT, measuring 3.5 on the Richter scale.
The initial explosion set off a series of further explosions. The next to go was 20,000 gallons of isobutane, then another of the polyethylene reactors, followed by several more. The debris scattered for six miles. In addition to injuries and significant loss of life, the explosions caused damages in excess of $700 million and destroyed two other production plants nearby.
2. Titan II Missile Silo Fire
Date: August 9, 1965
Location: Searcy, Arkansas
This isn’t the first time I’ve felt the need to bring up a Titan II Missile Silo accident in Arkansas. In fact, despite being different launch sites (there were 18 silos in Arkansas at the time), the missile in the launch duct of this accident — serial 62-0006 — was the same missile that would later explode at the Damascus site in 1980.
A civilian crew of 55 men were conducting maintenance and upgrades on all nine levels of the launch duct, with four Air Force crew supervising from the site’s control center. The warhead had been removed for this work, but the missile was still fully loaded with fuel and oxidizer.
Gary Lay, a 17 year old working his first day on the job, turned as he felt a rush of hot air. A wall of flames approached, and all hell started breaking loose. As the lights and power went out, Gary jumped through the flames, running through a tunnel to reach the control center, suffering second- and third-degree burns. At the other end of the launch duct, Hubert Sanders made his way to the control center through a cableway, suffering from smoke inhalation.
They were the only survivors. The rest of the construction crew perished as they attempted to reach the emergency escape ladder. The fire had sucked the oxygen out of the silo, asphyxiating 52 workers. Another victim drowned in hydraulic fluid.
Forensic investigators determined that a construction worker had accidentally struck a hydraulic line when welding. The spray of fluid ignited, resulting in catastrophe. The primary cause was human error, though it was determined the duct was inadequately ventilated and needed an independent power source for the elevator, which would have allowed more workers to escape.
1. Texas City Disaster
Date: April 16, 1947
Location: Texas City, Texas
The Grandcamp was in the Texas City port, loaded with tons of ammonium nitrate and ammunition bound for Europe. The ship’s crew noticed a fire at 8:00 a.m., and efforts to extinguish it failed. As the out-of-control fire gave off orange smoke and boiled the water around it, pressure built up inside the Grandcamp until the fertilizer reached an explosive threshold.
It was one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions ever. The blast leveled 1,000 buildings and generated shock waves felt hundreds of miles away. Refineries and chemical plants nearby burned, planes were ripped from the sky, and thousands of pounds of steel tore through the air at supersonic speeds. The ship’s anchor — weighing 4,000 pounds — was later found on the other side of town. Bales of burning twine (part of the Grandcamp’s cargo) fell out of the sky. Fires raged everywhere, and all but one of the Texas City firefighters were killed in the explosion.
The High Flyer was docked about 600 feet away. The explosion of the Grandcamp caused a fire on this ship, which also carried tons of ammonium nitrate and sulfur. After several hours of firefighting efforts, The High Flyer exploded as well, furthering the damage. The High Flyer’s anchor was found a mile inland.
With such a large explosion prior to development of our current forensic tools, it’s hard to determine the cause of the initial fire that sparked the explosion. Investigators believed that it may have been caused by a cigarette dropped the night before, allowing the fertilizer to smolder all night.
Expert Witness for Industrial Accidents
If you don’t have a great mechanical engineer in the beginning, you’ll need a great forensic engineer in the end. Protecting yourself or your company from damages after an industrial accident means being able to prove causation and culpability. If you or your client were injured on the job, only an expert witness would be able to prove your side of the story in a courtroom. For someone who has been injured, proving that the employer was liable is the difference between financial stability or crippling medical debt.